The Tea Party, the Blind Man, and the Elephant: Part 2

Yesterday I wrote about my effort to get a handle on the division over whether the tea party is about religion or “just taxes” by visiting a local meeting of the First Coast Tea Party (FCTP). I sat by a guy who really wanted to talk — so I let him. He talked about taxes and the Constitution, and then more about taxes. Actually, he didn’t know much about either, telling me that the “Fair Tax” would eliminate local property taxes and (when I asked about the tea party and religion) that “all the founding documents talk about God.” He railed against a couple of Democratic candidates and the teachers’ union; and then talked more about taxes.

Still, I had come with this question about the tea party and religion on the ground. There was a prayer, given by a woman, but it was a generic prayer with no aggressive Jesus stuff. The woman leading the meeting, Carole McManus, noted the FCTP mission statement: “to promote the principles of our founding fathers—individual liberty and responsibility, limited government, and moral leadership.” She didn’t elaborate on the definition of moral leadership but told a story about the origins of the organization in which there were three founding members who disagreed on whether moral leadership should be included or whether the group should be “just about taxes.” Moral leadership won out “because it’s important.” Still, who can be against morality?

The main speaker discussed controversial plans to property tax rates. There was discussion of the city budget, police and fire pension plans, and recent decisions to spend money on the Jaguars. The focus really was on taxes and spending.

Without a doubt this was a meeting of Republicans. A representative from the Republican Executive Committee spoke, invoking Newt Gingrich on Sean Hannity in support of Republican Get Out the Vote efforts. Speakers repeatedly cited national and state party officials, referring to the GOP. They warned that the “tea party” on the Florida ballot has been “uncovered” as a ruse by Democrats to “siphon of Republican votes.” But try as I might, I couldn’t get anyone to say much about religion—and I don’t mean just explicit religion. There was no talk of home schools or Christian schools, no real talk about the founders’ religious intentions. They value “moral leadership” but don’t define what that is.

This may be an effort to energize Republicans but there was about as much “God” at this meeting as there is in the Constitution.

This doesn’t change my view about what is happening at the national level, what is at the root of many of the views these groups espouse, or what influence they are likely to bring to government should they gain control. But the disconnect between the national level and the local level is real. The invocation of “moral values” illustrates what is happening really well. While the “moral values” remained undefined at the local meeting, they were much more clearly elaborated by FCTP co-founder Billie Tucker at the recent Values Voters Summit. Acknowledging the division within her group, Tucker told virtually the same story as the speaker at the Jacksonville meeting. Sarah covered the VVS here and here, and shared with me Tucker’s version:

The disagreement we had was this: we wanted as part of our mission statement, moral leadership… and one of the people on our team said, you can’t go there, you’re going to lose so many people. This is about taxes, Billie, this is about fiscal responsibility… [But] I knew that God did not wake me up for four months at 4 o’clock in the morning to say, ‘Billie, we’ve got a tax issue.’ He woke me up because he said, ‘my country doesn’t love me like it used to love me, and please do your part.’ And I said, ‘who am I?’ And God said, ‘go, I send you.’ Just like he did with so many people in the past… My life has changed… I’m talking to people about what’s going on in our country, and I am not an expert. But I know one thing. God is.

Later, Tucker told the VVS audience, “you are all tea party people. Because you care about your country and you want to right it back to its constitutional foundation, and that includes righting it back to godly principles.”

While many of my neighbors at the FCTP meeting were there to oppose taxes, the leadership of the tea party and the candidates they support share a commitment to bringing back to government their version of “godly principles.” They share the content of that vision when it will help them, and avoid doing so when it might not.